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11.04.18 Praying in God’s Presence Psalm 139.1-18 Sermon Summary

by on November 5, 2018

To the ancients, human physiology was a big mystery, but the spiritual life was more robust. It’s the opposite today for us moderns. If we moderns were to listen to the ancients on the spiritual life, we might hear something like Psalm 139.

Psalm 139 reads like the reflections of tribal elder who is looking back on his or her life and writing for posterity. It makes extensive use of allegory, the symbolic representation of abstract concepts. In this case, that abstract concept is the presence of God.

The heart of Psalm 139 is verses 7-8. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” After a long life of trying to escape, the author realizes we cannot. If we rise to the realm of the divine—heaven—or descend to the destiny of the human—death—God is equally in both places. We humans are incapable of imagining a place where God is not fully present.

Realizing this, the author begins to describe the extent of God’s presence, and uses one of main symbols of anxiety in the ancient world: The Sea. “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” If we start traveling as fast a bird, we would substitute air-travel, beginning at dawn and go all day and land on some remote island, even there we would not be out of God’s hands.

Then the Psalm turns to another ancient symbol of anxiety: The Darkness. “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” God isn’t just present in human darkness; God sees in it and through it. When we are utterly lost, disoriented, “blind,” God sees us and the way forward. Or as Jesus said in another context, “What is impossible with humans is possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)

Since God is everywhere, the author continues, God is also part of one’s entire life. “Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” Here we gain an insight on how God views our lives. Our lives consist of our bodies, our “unformed substance,” and God has beheld our lives through our bodies.

But our lives also consist of our choices, our reactions to what life presents us. Like reading a book, as we turn the page from childhood to adolescence, to adulthood, to vocation, perhaps to marriage and parenthood, to loss of health, to the final chapters—whatever life presents to us, “the days formed for me when none of them as yet existed”—and how we respond: God is already there.

And God is not only present throughout our lives, but also throughout our prayers. “Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.” Paul says the Spirit prays God’s will for us even when our words fail (see Romans 8).

The prayer of Psalm 139 teaches us these things about God’s Spirit and the spiritual life of God’s children. It invites us to practice prayer in a way perhaps different than we’ve been taught before. Here are three ways to practice prayer in the spirit of Psalm 139.

  1. Start every day remembering and anticipating God’s presence. Last week we looked at the faithful practice of knowing and applying the Bible by remembering the history of God’s people. Starting every day remembering that God has been present justifies our anticipating and looking for God’s presence throughout the day. The letter to the Colossians urges us to “look up” to find our lives hidden in Christ. Psalm 139 says we need only look around and look within to find God’s life hidden in us. Taking time in the morning previewing the day with God’s presence in it is one way to practice prayer in the spirit of Psalm 139.
  2. End every day with an examination of your experiences. This is a traditional practice of St. Ignatius of Loyola. As yourself, “When did I feel close to God today?” Offer thanks for these times. Then ask yourself, “When did I not feel close to God?” Turn these situations into intercessions. After a while, begin to look for patterns. This is how God guides us, as we pay attention to the movement of the Spirit day by day.
  3. Let sleep symbolize your utter dependence upon God. When we’re sleeping we are unproductive. We’re not worrying about anything. We’re not regretting anything. We’re not feeling guilty about anything. We’re not succeeding or failing at anything. We’re not solving any problems. And yet God is sustaining us. This is true throughout the night of sleep, but it is also true throughout your waking moments. That’s the message of Psalm 139.

So every night is an opportunity to remember God’s sustaining Spirit. And every day is an opportunity to enter God’s presence again. And the same is true at the Lord’s Table. Here we remember that God provides everything for us: We bring nothing. And here is an opportunity to experience God’s presence. For our host is the one who calls us to remember. He is the one who feeds us. He is the one who calls us to follow. Here at the Lord’s Table, we pray in God’s presence, and remember we may do so anywhere and anytime. For, “where can we go from God’s Spirit?” God is there. Amen.

Those nights when I am available to put my children to bed, I offer them a blessing which is based largely on the theology of Psalm 139. It goes like this:

“You are precious and perfect, a gift from God and from your mom and from yourself, and I say thank you. May God grant you a restful night and peace at the last.”

What’s true of my children is true of all children of God, including you. You are precious and perfect, and a gift from God and from yourself. And so is everyone you meet. Let us live in the faith of Psalm 139.

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